Study recommendations could impact fate of historic Lebanon railroad company

LEBANON, Ohio -- A popular passenger-only tourist excursion train in the City of Lebanon should do more to partner with downtown businesses to continue operating on the city-owned rail line, a long-awaited study released Thursday recommended.

Study architects, who surveyed 470 riders on the Lebanon Mason Monroe (LM&M) Railroad attraction over four mouths and conducted an economic analysis of the train’s impact on the city, said the company has received positive customer feedback, but the relationship between the city and rail company isn’t meeting its potential.

“In Lebanon, too many customers of the railroad manage to miss the downtown on the first visit, but still plan to return,” wrote study architects from Stone Consulting, Inc. in the study’s executive summary.

At issue is whether the city should continue to indirectly support the private company with taxpayer dollars by spending $200,000 each year to maintain the city’s rail line, which consists of five miles of track and five bridges. The rail company is the sole operator on the city’s line, and the track currently cannot support sustained freight, according to 2011 rail bridge load rating report.

"It's not common for a small community to own and operate a rail line," said Lebanon City Manager Pat Clements. "We have a business model where the full cost of the line has to be made up with only the value we're generating with the tourist operation because [the track] is not being shared."

But the study results discuss the benefit of sharing the track by adding freight to the city's rail line. The recommendations, which city council members will review in a special meeting next week, include:

- Finding a way to improve infrastructure on the rail line so it can support the movement of freight.

- Developing freight traffic on the city-owned rail line so the track will be more attractive to operators and will remove problems of both city ownership and ongoing subsidization of the line.

- Implementing on-board promotion and advertising of Lebanon businesses this year, such as placards and brochures.

- Forming a joint committee between the railroad and the city to investigate regional excursion operations that successfully implement federally required accessibility for the disabled.

- Offering a feedback mechanism via a discount coupon or offer code on-board the train for businesses to recognize train customers in their stores so the businesses can track the economic impact of the train.

- Asking downtown businesses to include railroad promotional brochures to their customers at the checkout counter to increase LM&M’s ridership.

- Discussing the practicality of LM&M taking on an increased role in track maintenance in exchange for reduced payment.

Supporters of the city’s contract with LM&M, which expires on Dec. 31., say the annual 40,000 train passengers bring in essential revenue that keeps some local businesses alive.

“There are people on council who feel as if we are writing a check to a business privately, and that’s not the case because we own that land. We have a responsibility to maintain that land whether it’s active or not,” said Matthew Rodriguez, a Lebanon City Council member who wants to keep the contract with the company.

Opponents say the track maintenance costs more than the railroad company brings in, and the thousands of dollars spent to maintain the tracks should instead be allocated towards the city’s other needs.  

“It’s a quarter of a million dollars that we have taken from taxpayers to subsidize one private company, and I’m not sure that’s the role of government,” said Wendy Monroe, a Lebanon city council member, who opposes the city’s contract with the railroad company.

It's a conversation that's divided city council members for years, but this is the first year officials will have access to the data about the train's local impact to help make their decision.

In a 4-2 vote in June 2013, city council officials first approved the $40,100 contract with Stone Consulting, Inc. to conduct the independent analysis of the costs and benefits of continuing to maintain the rail line to facilitate the tourist excursion train.

Become a WCPO Insider to read more about why council members are split on the issue, and learn how Lebanon businesses say they will be affected by the decision. 

For more stories by Taylor Mirfendereski, visit www.wcpo.com/Mirfendereski. Follow her on Twitter at @TaylorMirf.

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